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Expressing concern over the misuse of anti-dowry law by disgruntled wives, the Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the police cannot arrest husbands or in-laws without conducting a preliminary inquiry.

A bench comprising Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit cracked down on false dowry harassment cases and said there was a growing tendency to abuse Section 498-A of the Indian Penal Code. To check this, the court ordered the formation ‘family welfare committees’ in every district that would look into all complaints. 

The apex court said the committees, comprising three members, would interact with the complainant and the accused, and submit a report to the police or a magistrate within a month. 

“Till report of the committee is received, no arrest should normally be effected. The report may be then considered by the Investigating Officer or the Magistrate on its own merit,” said the bench. It said para-legal volunteers, social workers, retired persons and “other suitable persons” can be roped in for the committees.

The bench, however, made it clear that its directions would not extend to cases of tangible injury or death. 

The judgment came during the hearing of a petition filed by one Rajesh Sharma, who had appealed against an order of the Allahabad High Court.

The Supreme Court said that while the stringent punishment under the anti-dowry law were introduced with laudable objectives, it has been exploited and can lead to harassment of the accused. An arrest without the proper safeguards would be equivalent to brushing aside the human rights of the accused, the bench said. 

It also defined the parameters for a bail, saying that pleas should be dealt with on an expeditious basis, preferably the same day the appeal is filed. 

The court said it wants to see for six months how the arrangement worked and sought a report from the National Legal Services Authority by March 31, 2018, about the need for any change in its directions. The next hearing on the matter has been scheduled for April next year.